WASHINGTON – Republican Mitt Romney accuses President Barack Obama of considering America “just another nation.” To other GOP politicians running for the White House, Obama has apologized for the United States and is presiding over the nation’s decline.
Now comes the counteroffensive.
The president of the United States is defending his faith in America, confronting GOP efforts to undercut his leadership and raise questions about his patriotism as he seeks re-election.
In the battle over “American exceptionalism,” Obama used a recent trip to Asia to highlight America’s role as the strongest and most influential nation on earth. In this election season, responding to the Republican critique is essential for Obama, the only incumbent ever compelled to show a birth certificate to defend his legitimacy.
“Sometimes the pundits and the newspapers and the TV commentators love to talk about how America is slipping and America is in decline,” Obama said Wednesday at a New York fundraiser. “That’s not what you feel when you’re in Asia. They’re looking to us for leadership. They know that America is great not just because we’re powerful, but also because we have a set of values that the world admires.”
“We don’t just think about what’s good for us, but we’re also thinking about what’s good for the world,” he said. “That’s what makes us special. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
Republicans have seized on “American exceptionalism,” a belief among many in the nation that the U.S. is special among global powers, and tried to portray Obama as expressing ambivalence about the promise of his own country. The message resounds with party activists who still admire President Ronald Reagan, who memorialized America as that “Shining City on a Hill” during the 1980s.
“We have a president right now who thinks America’s just another nation. America is an exceptional nation,” Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, said during a GOP debate in Las Vegas last month. Even his campaign slogan — “Believe in America” — suggests that the current president doesn’t.
Others have tried to use it to their advantage.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly last month, said Obama had “traveled around the country making excuses for America, apologizing for America, saying that America is not an exemplary country.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized Obama after 16 Latin American and Caribbean nations filed “friend of the court” briefs in a Justice Department lawsuit against a tough new immigration law in South Carolina, home to an important GOP primary. “It makes you wonder what country does President Obama think he is president of,” Gingrich said.
Obama has given detractors ample material for their attacks.
At a San Francisco fundraiser in October, the president talked about the importance of investing in education, new roads and bridges and other ways to build the economy.
“We used to have the best stuff. Anybody been to Beijing Airport lately?” Obama said, asking what has changed. “Well, we’ve lost our ambition, our imagination, and our willingness to do the things that built the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam.” Republicans picked up on the comments, accusing Obama of calling Americans unambitious.
During a meeting with business executives in Honolulu last month, Obama was asked about impediments to investment in the U.S. He said many foreign investors see opportunity here, “but we’ve been a little bit lazy, I think over the last couple of decades.” The “lazy” comments were quickly turned into an attack ad from Perry.
During a 2009 news conference, Obama was asked whether he subscribed to the concept of American exceptionalism. He said he believed in American exceptionalism, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
The president said he was “enormously proud of my country” and highlighted the nation’s “core set of values enshrined in our Constitution” that ensure democracy, free speech and equality. Words that voters are likely to hear more of during the next year.
A Gallup poll in December 2010 found that 80 percent of Americans thought the U.S. had a unique character that made it the greatest country in the world. The survey found that 91 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement.
In the same poll, 34 percent of Republicans said Obama believed the U.S. was the greatest country in the world, while 83 percent of Democrats said he did.
The American exceptionalism argument has traditionally signaled U.S. strength overseas and the promotion of American values such as freedom of speech and religion. But with Obama’s rise, it has taken on a new meaning.
At a time of economic discord, it builds on the notion that America’s weakened economy could hurt its standing across the globe. It offers a critique of Obama’s foreign policy credentials, even as troops begin heading home from Iraq and the U.S. role in Afghanistan is transitioning.
It also represents a subtle way to question Obama’s patriotism, the seeds of which reside in the “birther” movement that questioned the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency. Suspicions over Obama’s citizenship eventually prompted the White House to produce the president’s long-form birth certificate showing he was born in Hawaii.
Yet Democrats don’t see this as a debilitating issue for the president, but more a matter of fodder in the Republican primary. Obama, they say, can draw upon it to show optimism in the country.
“Obama is powerful proof of American exceptionalism, that this country has certain set of ideals,” said Democratic consultant Bob Shrum. “His election and his presidency is a testament to the character of the country.”
Obama has been assertive in recent weeks about America’s unique role in the world as it shifts away from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. During his nine-day Asian trip last month, the president reiterated the U.S.’s growing role in the region and stressed that “American leadership is still welcome.”